After a quick huddle, the Jehovah's Witnesses divvied up San Jose's leafy streets: That duo will take north Laurinda Drive, another will head south. Door-to-door they knock, smile, invite until the block was done. Then it was off to Leigh Avenue to do it again.
In an unprecedented campaign, Jehovah's Witnesses, renowned and sometimes shunned for their zealous evangelism, want to personally invite as many people as possible to their annual convention, and they're doing it in their signature style: by knocking on strangers' doors.
The Northern California push launches a series of conventions spreading across the United States this summer and then around the globe. Each three-day convention will spur Witnesses to knock on the door of every house, apartment, condo and hut in the region.
'The reason we're so concerned is the times we're living in. No one can deny the times are critical,' said Ray E. Vaden Sr., 74, an amiable man from San Jose who became a Witness 43 years ago, after someone came to his door. 'What we're interested in is getting the word out to our neighbors.'
It's a tall order. There are 70,000 to 90,000 Witnesses in Northern California determined to reach out to the 4.9 million households between Salinas and the Oregon border. Witnesses have just three weeks before each convention -- there are nine conventions in Northern California alone -- to invite everyone in their territory. To reach everyone in time, Witnesses have been making an extra push in neighborhoods -- working longer hours, walking longer distances and talking faster.
Witnesses, who claim 6.6 million members worldwide and growing, believe that Armageddon -- the final battle between good and evil -- is imminent, though they don't have an exact date. Believers say the event will lead to the destruction of wickedness and the Earth's restoration as a perfect Eden, where the faithful will flourish.
Hence, this year's invitation blitz. They want to give everyone a shot at salvation.
Every Jehovah's Witness is responsible for personally evangelizing -- heeding Jesus' instructions that his followers preach the Gospel. Their journal, The Watchtower, has found its way to millions of doorsteps. Witnesses regularly visit homes and businesses, offering publications in myriad languages, including English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Punjabi.
Witnesses believe that God's word is above all others', and the Bible is central to their faith, offering ultimate guidance on how to live. Witnesses draw a clear distinction between Christian concerns and secular ones. For instance, Witnesses don't celebrate any holidays, like Independence Day, and remain neutral on political matters, including voting.
The adherents relish long biblical discussions, whether it's in living rooms or doorways. If someone is interested, Witnesses will call again or invite them to Bible study. If no one answers the door, they'll typically try again later.
Consequently, it usually takes months to cover a territory.
Take Evangeline Flores, who tailors her talks to each house she approaches. If she spots toys on the lawn, she might chat with the homeowner about family life. If she sees a mezuzah -- the doorway emblem on Jewish homes -- she'll discuss peace. 'Despite the difference in religion,' the San Jose receptionist noted, 'we'd all like to see peace.'
But for this lightning campaign, Flores and her Hillsdale congregation have just three weeks to blanket the turf that runs from the ranch homes stacked side-by-side in San Jose to the cottages tucked in the Santa Cruz Mountains down to Highway 17. To complete the task, Flores said, 'we're being a bit briefer.'
Not everyone appreciates their approach. People have threatened Witnesses and cursed at them. Recently, when one approached a house, a motion-sensitive recording announced that no solicitors were welcome. (Witnesses don't consider themselves solicitors.)
Often, people cut short friendly conversations when they realize they are talking with a Witness. Sometimes, no one answers the door, though Witnesses can hear them scurrying inside.
Nicholas Garrett, a Witness for 70 years, blames it on crime. 'It's a sign of the times,' said Garrett, a member of the Hillsdale Congregation. 'My wife wouldn't go to the door if I wasn't home.'
Alan Mobley, a member of the Edenvale Congregation in South San Jose, says society is uncomfortable discussing God.
'People have learned from their youth to not talk about religion,' he said. 'And here you are, an uninvited visitor, talking about a topic they've been taught not to discuss.'
Marion Balster explained why she turned down an invitation to the convention. 'I don't see any reason for it,' said Balster, who converted to Catholicism 50-plus years ago, 'because I have my own church to attend.'
Still, Vaden kept trying. For the convention campaign, he's stretched his days until 2:30 p.m. Typically, he works from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., hitting every doughnut shop and doorbell in a neighborhood.
'This is not easy work -- long days walking on the pavement,' Vaden said. 'And in summer, it's hot.'
Still, he wore a suit, a tie and tasseled loafers. Female Witnesses chose skirts and sensible sandals. It's important, they said, to look respectable when you're representing God. Besides, people are even less likely to open their door if you look shady.
On a recent morning, Vaden and a group of Witnesses fanned out near Leigh High School in San Jose. Consulting index cards depicting sections of the city, they split up the lushly landscaped streets and began knocking.
The first house had a barking dog, a stuffed animal lynched in the tree and no one home. At another house, women in pajamas told Vaden: 'We're Christians, actually.' Witnesses say they are, too, but Vaden simply wished them a good day and kept walking.
If someone wasn't home, Vaden left a flier depicting the peaceful kingdom to come under the doormat. Few were home in the morning, and even fewer were receptive.
His daughter-in-law Patricia Vaden and fellow Witness Evelyn Thomas, who split the streets with him, had more luck: People at about 10 houses spoke with them. Some apologized that they had weddings or graduations to attend so couldn't make it to the convention. No one said they would come.
Vaden was undaunted. The great-grandfather planned to take a break -- sciatic legs and a bad back required rest -- and head out again in the evening. There was still much to do, and time was short.